Red Fox & Blue Butterfly

LxXVb5wI ran at a steady pace up Fort Totten Hill. Its summit was raised a level higher by the Civil War era Earth-works of the fort upon that hill. Trees occlude its remains but paths of worn stones persist. My irregular running routine had not greatly affected my ability to climb the weather cracked easement from the street level to where the sun-bathed hillside fades to a shaded gravel road.

A red fox dashed into the undergrowth but not fast enough. My steady speed, I noted, allowed me to have a generous look at this vermilion phantom — this was just my third fox sighting in as many years. Because of this fleet-footed spirit-animal, my first Monday after quitting that job assumed a glow of ordination, an aura somewhere between rusted and rosy. I continued for a quarter mile beyond that point.

As I looped back, I bashed my foot against a tree-trunk. The stroke of clumsiness was unexpected, crest-breaking, and it hurt-like-hell. I limped the thorn-lined path out of the woods. As I crossed the sunny expanse of lawn on the hillside nearest the street, I saw a tiny blue butterfly. I grasped the irony, then: I would not have stopped if I were not already struggling, unable to run. Kneeling, I soaked-in its finest details: the slight purplishness of its blues, the creamy undersides of each wing bearing ‘eye-spots’, bold but minuscule, as if drafted by expert calligraphers.

More than two days later, I could barely walk around the grocery store. The parable is seemingly orthogonal to how I thought the tensions of the universe played. Going quickly, I was able to see the fox, orange-red, and going slowly I was blessed with the butterfly, so so purple-blue. Who am I to say that one beauty is greater? To hustle and to hobble were both divine. The lesson about pace was not that any pace was better but that something different was to be learned at each pace.

Many of us would trade the butterfly, would trade the blues, to keep sprinting. We aspire to follow the torch of the fox’s tail indefinitely. Yet it was not the long-gone fox’s fault I busted my foot on a tree — I could have been more leisurely, more careful. On the other hand, even at a jog, would I stop to see a tiny, blue butterfly? Without its fluttering blues as a lure, would I kneel to see the fine marks on each wing’s underside: the tiny eyes that watch our fox-hunts?

Echinargus isola: http://www.learnaboutbutterflies.com/North%20America%20-%20Echinargus%20isola.htm

Echinargus isola, Sycamore Canyon, Arizona, USA © Frank Model

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Mind-Trip: Visiting Past Selves

The morning after my graduate coursework was complete, and with no more school assignments to write, I sat in dim quiet. A restlessness stirred in my core but fatigue lingered-on. I decided to try a self-compassion exercise I found on the Internet. It told me to think of an uncomplicated love and I tried to remember my grandparents. I could send those ‘warm fuzzy feelings’ to the leftover parts of me inside, supposedly, by visiting my memories.

The next part of the exercise asked me to send compassion to past versions of myself. At first I pictured myself in the seventh grade, walking down the hallway with a large piece of cardboard that read “I love [girl’s name]”, with a pink heart (like one does). Picturing the scene elicited an uncomfortable mixture of stale teenage hopelessness and amused retrospection. “Maybe I’m too old to connect—” I muttered to myself, “I am nearly two-and-a-half times as old as I was then.”

lucky_Kristen-Brown-took-itWithout realizing what I was doing, I started to rub the prayer beads I bought in al-khalil. I might have an easier time connecting to myself in Jordan, I mused. Around this time four years ago I passed through Amman twice while waiting for Israeli immigration services to process my volunteer visa so I could return to Bethlehem. After a brief sojourn in Southeast Asia I settled for a few weeks in the Canary Hotel in ‘jebel weibdeh’ near a glorious mosque with a blue dome. I soon fell ill with some pathogen that stowed away in my body from either Hong Kong or Davao City. I pictured myself wrapped in sweat soaked sheets at the Canary hotel, then sitting patiently for over six hours at an Israeli embassy, and finally sipping Arabic coffee and preparing for the now-infamous border-crossing into the West Bank. I saw myself, shaggy hair, bearded chin, and a face that is a little more pink than brown both because and despite of the sun. My eyes are too blue but I — this ‘younger me’ is gun-ho to return to Palestine. Even if I’d had the power, I doubted he would join me for a ‘jaunt’ through time. Once he left his sick-bed, I did not know how to send him compassion — there was little to pity in a version of myself so genuinely brave. At that moment, I was not mentally prepared to follow him to the crossing at ‘beit shaan’ and I opened my eyes. My room in Northeast Washington, DC flashed back into existence and I exhaled, sharply. I closed my eyes again.

Still rubbing the beads I went deeper into my trance, in search of a past version of myself to which I could send compassion. I remembered Geneva; I’ve had writers’ block about my brief time in the French and Swiss countryside, there, for a long time. Preparing to cross at ‘beit shaan’ is one matter: the pressure from Israeli border control was expected. Nine months later, the counselor at the debrief center West of Geneva caught me off-guard. I wanted to just be authentic in my feelings and be affirmed, feel normal. Instead, the therapist made little room for ISM politics or even Palestinian Liberation Theology; I felt judged for my frustration. I watch myself going silent in her office, then praying with a candle in the same office later that night, then wandering across a snowy canvass amid the breath-taking scenery. I took long walks that week, trying to follow the sight and sound of hawks. I hoped for guiding signs, to help me adjust in the sudden cold and emptiness — literally, relationally. Now I am following the twenty-six-year-old version of me back into Geneva, onto a train leaving for Zurich and places beyond. My two Never seen a pale-face in a kefia? Get used to it.former co-workers, R2 and Debz, are there but I swiftly recalled that 26 (this version of me) felt distant from them. He seemed almost real. He wore one of those hats that is a cross between a billed-cap and a beret that is solid black, always turned backward; he still has the black-and-white kefia purchased in a Bethlehem market, wrapped loosely around his neck, partly draping down his chest and tucked into Buck’s* olivey-brown sport-jacket. One one lapel are two pins, a Palestinian flag and a key symbolizing the return of refugees. Dressed to be a bona fide ISM-activist, surrounded by the glory of mountains, mere feet away from wonderful colleagues, he sat in perplexity and despair on a cushy train-seat. I imagined him rubbing…

Prayer beads. He looked-up at me, suddenly awake. Realizing he could see me, realizing I was on the train over three years ago, I gasped and crouched to the floor in a muted panic.

“Get over here,” he commanded in a harsh whisper, “you’re just as conspicuous like that. Walk over here, calmly, and pretend to be my twin before Debz or R2 see you.”

“I’m sorry, I thought you might be lonely— actually, I knew, but I didn’t… um… wait! You know that I am a future version of you? That seems too convenient.”

“Just now, I wished someone who truly understood would appear. Again, it seems too convenient—who else, ever, could understand?

“Right.”

“How did I learn to do this time-warp thing? Or I shouldn’t ask, I guess. Nevermind. Don’t tell me the future. Just…” He leaned against the window, sapped of vim.

“Sit with you? I can do that.” He reached-out and held my hand. I had not realized how much I wanted my hand held and I gave 26’s hand a squeeze. He quickly let go and I never quite asked ‘why’. By this time the train was moving and vivid images from my past mesmerized me, the alps scrolling by through the abundant windows while we remained nestled in the luxurious train-cabin.

“Life is good, then? You don’t have to give details.”

I hesitated. Did I really believe my life was better than his? The answer was ‘yes’, mostly, because I knew his world had spun upside-down in a week whereas mine was just turning, slowly, on its side. “I just finished graduate school; you knew you would do that. I’m going to be thirty.”

“Peace and conflict at American University? I see your AU t-shirt.” I just smiled at him. The answer is ‘no, not P & C’ but it was not worth explaining ITEP.

“We all need to be rescued, sometimes,” I said with a wink. He smirked and started gazing out of the window again. I read that as assent but it was not.

“If you could come here, does that mean we both could return to somewhere else?” This time, I was careful not to hesitate for fear he would doubt my expertise — of which I had none, of course.

“Well… the prayer breads brought me here… it seems… so maybe if we agree where to go next and both rub our beads we can… yeah. I should mention, this is part of an exercise in self-compassion that went magically wrong. I should have said that right away.”

“Self-compassion can go magically wrong? And I thought you said you were here to ‘rescue me’? Well, it’s worth a try. I just want to get out of here.”

Something about the way he said ‘rescue me’ touched my heart in a strange way. One of those uncanny feelings that there is not language to describe surfaced and I let it slide by, or linger, or whatever near-subliminal emotions do. I wondered if he would take us to al-khalil where the beads had come from or another place I was not mentally prepared to go. “Can you do me a favor? Can we go somewhere in Michigan?”

He continued to stare out of the window. God only knows where he wanted to go, in the first place. Then he nodded. “There are other versions of us to be rescued, right?” He slowly looked at me and the sensation was wonderful and terrible, far beyond seeing oneself in the mirror for the first time. This version of myself that I had come to console was, despite my intentions to comfort him, the epitome of the rescuer in me — and he had just concluded his mission. 26 was looking for ACTION at a time when reflection gave him no solace. I glanced instinctively over my shoulder and thought that Debz and R2 were looking at us.

Convinced that the jig was up, I approached: “Ladies it is truly a gift to see you again; as you can see, I am John Daniel’s doppelganger—from the future, not a precise doppelganger. Before you say anything, I need to get some things off our chest, 26 and me (I’m 30 but that’s not important)~ number one, he is very confused right now. It’s true that he’s attracted to both of you but that’s NOT what is on his mind right now. He just lost an office of beloved, Arab, co-workers and he’s feeling disconnected…”

“John Daniel…”

“—I understand that the both of you are enjoying your independence, especially Debz, and that he might seem like a little bit of a drag. I apologize on his behalf— he just needs some more perspective. Plus, the therapist at the retreat center actually treated him like SHIT but he doesn’t want to burden either of you with that…”

“EARTH TO THIRTY! THEY CANNOT SEE OR HEAR YOU… oh damn, did they hear me?”

A pregnant pause filled the cabin as I waddled a retreat. “I guess not.”

“I’m still not even sure if I’m conscious—I must be asleep on the train. Although this episode is certainly telling me something about how I feel about myself…”

“Let’s make the best of your dream, then?” I asked, hopefully.

“Let’s go rescue 19,” he said. The flush returned to his face.

“When you say it like that, it’s really infantilizing. He is technically a grown-man.”

“Technically,” scoffed 26. Not surprisingly, as my younger self’s vigor flowed so did his penchant for ‘assbad’ comments. It was so good to see him smile, I decided to play-along.

“Let’s go lift his pitiful ass out of bed!” I said with some gusto.

We rubbed on our beads for a while. “Maybe we need something else— something that you and he share—”

“—like our entire bodies? Or is it true that all the cells in our bodies change in seven years?”

“…rub your stitch: I bet the surgery is on his mind…” I said it with some gravitas, hoping he would take the bait.

“…rub YOUR stitch, wanker! I’m not rubbing my stitch on a Swiss train…”

“…it has to be you. Trust me. It has to be the person who is physically visible in the environment from which the teleportation is taking-place,” I lied. I wanted to see him do it. “And you won’t see these people again. R2 is not even looking—”

“—screw you—”

“screw yourself: just do it (and you’re the wanker)”. He glanced around, then furtively shoved his hand down his pants. I put my hand down my pants for good measure, since I was invisible anyway. “…just to show you how it’s done, of course.”

“Wanker… now it looks like—”

dorm-desk-and-bunkBut suddenly we were in a dormitory room on the campus of Michigan State University, sitting next to each other on the bottom bunk. A slush-laden pine tree was visible through a window.

Naturally, 19 was in the top-bunk sulking about his surgery and the complications that followed. Granted, bed was probably a good place for him: he had a severe respiratory infection. The surgical sight itself was free of infection but he was on a medication to reduce swelling at, shall we say, ‘critical junctures’. We could not see his hands but we both knew where they were.

“Be gentle with that stitch, boy,” I said playfully as we stood and looked at him.

“AHH! WHO THERE? BAH! DIE!”

“Dude, 30,” 26 said calmly, “have you forgotten our tendency to startle when our bedroom is invaded? Hey 19…” he said turning to him.

[”We got nothing in common…” I crooned]

“We are the 30 year old and 26 year old versions of yourself, here to ‘rescue you’…”

[”No we can’t talk at all…”]

“This is part of an exercise in self-compassion and rescue…”

[”PLEASE TAKE ME ALONG— don’t either of you remember that Steely Dan song?”]

“…we are here to rescue you — older, wiser — to lift your ass from bed—”

“Whoa,” I said, “this is overwhelming. He has not said anything. Aren’t you overwhelmed?”

“It just figures,” said 19, closing his eyes and starting to cry, “that I would be psychotic in addition to everything else.”

“It’s going to be okay,” said 26 reassuringly. “We’re going to get you THE FUCK OUT OF HERE. So get dressed…”

“…whoa. What is the hurry?” I protested. “As a matter of fact, I am cold. I came here straight from… a place.” I balked. Neither of us wanted to explain to 19 how he came to leave his home state. “Can I crawl into bed with you? That guy over there is dressed for—umm…”

“MICHIGAN. See? I’m wearing a scarf.” He fumbled his kefia tassels awkwardly. I was still wearing my American University t-shirt.

“Forget what we’re wearing,” I said. As I sprung into the top-bunk, 19 recoiled and turned his front-side toward the wall. “We came here to talk to you. Maybe not so much to ‘rescue’ you; maybe that was not the right word.”

“—that was sure as hell the word you used for me, as if I hadn’t gone… places that required… self-sufficiency.” This game of hiding 19’s future was quickly turning into a comedy routine. “But hey 19, my man, we know you’re having a rough time,” said 26 recovering his assuaging tones.

“Yeah, buddy,” I said starting to spoon the younger version of myself. He was still wrapped like a burrito and I was worried that he was not wearing very much underneath. His face looked oddly pale when I remembered, distinctly, being feverish and on the edge of death. I expected him to be ruddier.

“What is there left to say?” he mumbled to the wall. “I’m sick and frustrated all the time. I never get across campus to see Kim…” 26 rolled his eyes. “And I’m just afraid I’m going to blow-it. I’m so… conflicted. I want to be with her and yet I don’t want to burden her. At the same time…”

“Forget about her!” said 26 emphatically, “you’ll do all kinds of things that she wished she had done!”

“26,” I said sternly, “we’re not talking about the f-u-t-u-r-e, here.”

“30…” said 19, “I am an English-major. I get it.

“—you’re going to be a writing tutor!” volunteered 26.

“Shut-up!” I said, surprised by my own frustration.

“He’s already in the writing-center rhetoric class, so he knows anyway,” sassed 26.

“Anyway…” he continued without making eye-contact, “maybe I do need to go on anti-depressants.”

“DON’T”

“Dammit, 26! Shut. UP.”

“Not that there’s shame in it but your chemistry will get—” I threw a pillow as hard as I could at 26.

“Go take a walk! Go see if you can find someone to — but you’re invisible —bah, I don’t care…”

“Fine,” he said, releasing a deep breath, “I’ll just sit on the floor and listen.”

“You were saying, John? Try to look at my eyes while you talk. Pretend I’m just a funky mirror that… that can hug back.”

At first he was a little reluctant but after a while he let me under the covers with him and we talked for a long while. 26 seemed to lose his stomach for all of the talk about our ex-girlfriend and decided to ghost-walk around MSU’s campus. I quickly became jealous of him, as the charm of cuddling a younger version of myself went stale. No doubt, I felt some sympathy for 19 but he seemed to be churning the same set of problems into a thick, milky paste of anxious feelings. On the other hand, I could not judge him because there was not much he could do about it and, really, that was what I understood the best. His want to take action, the bitter feelings of helplessness, and wanting to be completely loved, even coddled, the moment he (we, I) relinquished being strictly self-sufficient — the chasm between independently-strong and totally-supported is cold, horrifying, and wide. What I understood that 19 did not was that his social networks were filled not with great people who shunned him, nor with bad people per se, but with normal people who were also still growing — still young.

The scarved-ghost returned. All at once, I saw him for what he was: the culmination of 19’s plan-B wishes. 19’s hope in Love would burn-down several times and from the ashes would rise 26: assbad-tastic. Unconsciously, I had put myself in the company of the most vulnerable, dependent version of myself and the most hardened incarnation… but they both needed compassion. They both were severely lonely and wishing for connection. They both needed to be accompanied…

“Hey 19: we’ve actually got more in-common than I initially realized…” said 26.

I accepted this insight with credulity: “I was just thinking the same thing.”

“Oh were you, old man? Well, I was thinking about our favorite bouncing ball. Come-on out of bed, with me, and show me where the ball is.” 19 obliged him, unsmiling. He tumbled from the bunk, to the floor, and then rose to his desk and opened a small drawer. He held-up a rubber-ball filled with swirls of blue, white, and peachy-pink.

“Bounce it, for us.” He did: it rebounded from the ceiling and off of walls back into his hand. “You’re not doing so bad, eh?”

“I guess not but I can never seem to hold onto this feeling that, you know, things are going to be okay.”

“It can be a challenge—it’s a challenge for me right now,” I said, mimicking 26’s tone. The walk seemed to be good for the renegade missionary; maybe I needed a nice, brisk stroll through the pines.

“I think you remember,” said 26 to 19, “the day after Laura broke-up with you?” This allusion bothered me but I could not think of any better examples that were not deep, deep into the future.

“Yeah?” answered 19, his eye still on the ball. “I guess that whole relationship was, I don’t know…”

“—remember that you tried to mow and you had to stop the John Deere lawn-tractor because you started weeping? Remember the scent of cut grass? The whisps of exhaust?”

“I remember, too…” I said, closing my eyes. I should have realized what 26 was doing.

“—I was crying pretty hard. I felt so ridiculous, dressed-up so… masculine?… but crying harder than I had in years. Plaid, paint-stained jeans… but tears running down my cheeks,” said 19. I kept imagining his shaven, sweaty, acne-spotted, face:

“—and no beard—” I added with a wince.

“—then you went up on the deck, that connected to the dining-room through a pair of double-doors, and sat on one of those black, metal gliders. The sky was so blue, dotted with cottony clouds, and the buzz of insects~ can you hear how alive that day was?”

“—today seems so… dead…”

“—but you were alive and it was the summer of 2003 and what did you do?”

“I bounced the ball…”

“—and rubbed it—”

“Now I can hear the insects! And I feel hot—am I halucinating?”

“Oh shit…” I said, jolting awake.

“This is not an illusion; this is an exercise in compassion going magically wrong,” said 26.

“This is not a delusion but 26 might be deluded,” I said, taking a wide look.

“Did I just do the time-warp with you two? This ball has never done that before… I’m not sure I want to talk to the seventeen-year-old me. I’ve changed a lot.”

I started laughing. 26 was more focused: “Don’t you want to rescue him? Wouldn’t that be empowering? Or should we rescue him?”

“Does we imply 26 & 30? Because this wasn’t 30’s idea. Also, referring to myself as 30 with three younger versions of myself staring back is surreal… it’s giving me heebie-jeebies.”

“Are you sure this isn’t your idea? You climbed onto a train leaving Geneva to rescue me…”

“I said rescue ONCE; I said ‘everyone needs to be rescued sometimes. Haha… you’re a missionary, let’s hold-hands and pretend not to feel lonely’ or something like that.”

“Did I cry so hard that I passed-out?” said 17. He had gone from hysterical to high-as-a-kite in the space of a few minutes.

“You’re okay said 19,” then started coughing, “but maybe I could sit down? I’m, uhm, a 19 year-old version of you. I guess this is some kind of spell…”

“A spell implies it was intentional,” I spat.

“Wasn’t it?” asked 26, “wasn’t this your idea?”

“To find you on the train not to haul 19’s ass out of bed — though I might have said those exact words, yes. Okay, that was half my idea but this,” I protested, spinning around and pointing at my childhood home, a beloved tree, Mom’s intact flower garden, the garage overfilled with memories, the sound of dribbled basketballs filtering through the trees separating us from a nearby park, “—this wasn’t my idea but it was a WONDERFUL idea!” I turned and jumped off the side of the deck, laughing. A muffled jingling sound rang from further away, then the clear tinkle of dog tags: Buster was awake. My now-deceased dog emerged from his little brown house, panting, and wagging his tail.

“Aren’t you paying attention?” called-out 26, “Your past-selves need to be rescued, here on the deck, and you’re going to… wow, Buster looks much younger! Look at him jump! I haven’t seen him look that lean or jump that high in… years…” He must have peeled his jacket off because the next I heard from him he was unwinding the kefia from his neck, shouting “—I’m coming too.”

When I glanced back I saw that 17 was bringing 19 a glass of water and a picnic blanket— the guy was in his pajamas, after all.

“17 is bringing 19 an inhaler, ironically,” said 26. “I think the rescuer dynamic is playing in reverse.”

“For a moment, I was getting ready to chew you out but I think you were amping yourself to chafe me, too. For my word choice.”

“To tell you the truth, I’m having a love-hate relationship with this idea of being a rescuer. You probably have a love-hate relationship with the idea of me, too?”

“Mostly love,” I said, scratching the dog behind his floppy ear, then prying him off of my sleeve. In his elder years he had stopped playing tug-of-war with people’s clothes but this Buster was only 3 years old. “I wonder if this is right before or right after Buster learned to unlatch the pen with his nose. It crossed my mind to take him for a walk but I was afraid to let all of you out of my sight. Not that you need me.”

“Not really. You seemed more eager to hold my hand and watch the alps pass by than lend me any wisdom you picked-up in Washington, DC.”

“Not all emotional support is advise or even instrumental. Sometimes it is just presence, just accompanying someone.”

“—you needed to be in-mission with yourself? This is about accompaniment? I definitely didn’t need that from you.”

“Maybe not while you were in Bethlehem and you had Zoughbi and the others to look-up-to but… let’s not say ‘you’. Let’s say that ‘I’ lost the spirit of accompaniment and became even more social-justice-ramrod from a distance than I was up close. I let the retreat-center therapist get in my head in just the opposite way when what I needed —what you need to do is find some compassion for her because she was going to drop the ball. You shook-up her theology and world-view in the space of one session. Can you muster some compassion?”

“I’m not sure I can,” he said, half-chuckling.

“That’s alright; the only reason that I can is because I found some supportive people in Washington. But it’s going to take a long time. Don’t chain yourself to the White House fence or something. Live to meet your people.”

“That sounds a lot like advice that I don’t need. I feel like what I need is to have a squirt-gun fight. Do you have any, uh, special intelligence about what happened to the Supersoakers in the garage? Are they/were they still there in ‘03?”

“Let’s go ask 17. He seems to be good for more than I thought.”

“Oh crap. Mom & Dad are down there. He looks like a zombie…”

“It makes me uncomfortable to see them together. Even now. Or perhaps more now than ever.”

“I don’t even want to know. I just can’t go down there.”

We had a squirt-gun fight. Then we turned our mouths purple eating wild-raspberries. Then we paced around the other side of the house talking about childhood and almost went into the house through another door. Yet when we heard 19 call for us, breathlessly, both us old farts raced to the deck and scaled its highest part. My shoes were better and I won.

17 was standing there, still half-way shocked but not so dazed that he could not launch into a series of questions about the future, aimed mostly at me. 19 kept adding obscure details from his cocoon on a glider, poorly camouflaged with inexpertly cryptic phrasings. I allowed it, since I felt most of what happened between 17 and 19 didn’t matter that much. At first I was surprised to see 26 lay serenely on the other glider but, of course, he had been through most of what I had. ‘Social process time’ moves faster when relatives start dying and you go through several different ‘homes’. More than the tendency to minimize his youthful ‘romantic’ sufferings, it seemed like 26 was really happy to be ‘home’ in the Michigan summer. I smirked at him when I caught his eye.

“—so you’re not going to say anything to me? Why did either of you bother coming here— just to bring me him?” he said, pointing at 19 “when you knew he was sick, anyway?”

“My bad,” said 26, “feed him some raspberries.”

“I’ve learned my lesson. I need to stop trying to ‘rescue’ my former selves. I should learn to be present with all the pieces of myself.” I put my hand on my heart and said, ‘you each are an important and cherished part of me—” trying to make eye-contact with each of them.

“Good. Tell me what I can do to be the best version of myself.”

“Shut the fuck up and be cute,” said 26, snickering.

“Twenty-six,” I said sternly but I could not keep a straight face: “—he’s right. Although I noticed that you… your skin looks terrible.” I laughed audibly. “It’s kinda’ painful and hilarious at the same time, especially when he told you to be cute… but you ARE cute!”

In hindsight, I don’t think 17 believed me. He walked off the deck, turned on the hose and drenched himself. That seemed like the right time to leave — before something funky happened to space-time. As tempting as it was to change the course of history, possibly preventing 19 from becoming so SO pitiful, I could not bear sending my teenage self on any trajectory that would not produce 26 exactly as he was. 17 went back to his tractor to finish mowing, probably eager to dismiss us as mirages.

“Let’s grab 19 and get out of here before we rip-up our timelines and disappear like an alternate ending of Back to the Future.”

“Great idea; just tell me what I need to do,” retorted 26, without moving.

“Yeah. Okay. Remember when you were bothering me about it being my idea to come ‘rescue’.”

“I’m still wondering about all of that,” said 19. I patted him on the head. “And quit kiddifying me.”

“You mean infantilizing you?” said 26, this time with his hat drawn over his eyes to keep-out a dappling of sunshine straying through the leaves above. 19 curled into a tighter ball. “…so, chief. 30. How do we reverse this ‘exercise in compassion gone magically wrong’?”

“Technically, I’m not 30 for another month. Also, it wasn’t my idea. It all just kinda’ happened when I rubbed the prayer beads.” 19 squirmed.

“Well, fuck it anyway?” said 26.

“Maybe you’re ready to hit the fuck-it button but I want to get back to DC and graduate! I’m going to have a life!”

“You had a life— he’s in the Spartan Brass (even if he’s too sick to play right now— okay, I take it back he doesn’t have a life) and I should be going with my two awesome co-workers from Geneva to New York City. Doesn’t that count?”

“I should ask you— doesn’t that count? I know you feel a lot better zoning-out in this memory but we’re… wraiths…”

“—we already were—” replied 26 moodily, now staring off into the trees. I stared with him for a while, in a spirit of accompaniment.

“I’m right here with you, both of you. I have warm, fuzzy feelings for you. The two of you. You’re so cute. You’re so much cuter than 17, 26, with your kefia and tough-guy routine!” I poked him on the cheek. He didn’t seem to like it. “Go poke your brother.”

We both poked 19 but he was unresponsive: still breathing, eyes still open, but empty-headed. We continued poking him all over until finally he jolted into action.

“Balls!”

We both cracked-up laughing at him. “Balls, chief?”

“We bounced and rubbed the rubber-ball to get here; we need to do it again.”

“Uhhh… you sorta’ missed this earlier in the conversation but I actually rubbed some prayer beads to flash-back to 26, here. I’m not sure how the jump forward works.”

“Does it work?” asked 26, “or aren’t we fated to keep repeating the same patterns?”

“If that is the case, I need to find a way to accompany myself. I was the one who needed rescuing from my own rescuing. You all are cherished pieces of me—I have warm fuzzy feelings for all of you.”

“You already said that, though I don’t know if I believe it,” said 19. “You two have made fun of me this entire trip. Hell, even the 17 year old version of me was more sympathetic and he hasn’t even gone through all the things I already have!” 26 sighed heavily and I wasn’t sure if it was remorse or exasperation.

“—you’re right!” I said before 26 could say anything more. “We’ve been minimizing your hurt all day— nay, for years and years! We even brought you to this spot so you could minimize 17 and instead you found his primordial kindness intact! We need your powers to take us forward!”

“Primordial kindness? Please don’t ask him to rub his stitch, 30…”

“No no, I’m telling him something from the future to jolt him ahead—”

“Well,” said 26, “stranger things have already happened in our life.”

maria's“I need your help, 26. I need you to remember with me the first time we went to play trumpet under the Bogue Street bridge AFTER the bronchitis subsided. 19, hold our hands. Imagine its late April and all of us are walking toward the Red Cedar River. It’s a little humid but much cooler than this or the train. In the shadowed alcoves beneath the bridge it is cooler still and you wonder if you’ll ever be able to play again. Imagine yourself silhouetted against a canvas of bright greens, standing between a camera lens and the river. Now remember the song that you composed for yourself. Hear it in your mind. What is it called?”

“Underbridge Blues” we all say.

19 shivered and crawled back into his bunk. “I wonder if I’ll even remember this dream.”

“I hope you don’t—” said 26, “so that the day under the bridge is a great surprise.”

“As for you, habeeb,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. He gave my hand a squeeze then let it go again. I almost asked him about the time we touched-hands before but I was in mid-sentence: “—Geneva is not going to be a total waste. There is no good falafel and sharing a room with Debz is going to continue being awkward. Try not to worry about that. When you return to New York City—grab my other hand while I tell you this— when you return to New York City you are going to take a long walk with Alex and Clifford; Clifford swears that he knows a great bar on the other side of Manhattan. You will be colder than you can remember being in your life and on the verge of turning back. But you find it! It’s ancient, the walls are covered in memorabilia from over a century of young men, coming and going. Imagine wish-bones thrown into a chandelier. Everything inside the bar is warm, despite the frigid city blocks all around, and those two guys… those two guys? They are still your friends in distant places. They still send you messages. 19 breathed deeply again and you… you? You will be close to other people again. It will take even longer but it’s happening. Your train will come…”

“—I’m on it; I’m awake,” he said. A lady in a uniform spoke to him in broken English and he pulled francs from his pocket to purchase some canned orange-juice.

“Nothing like a woman in uniform to get the blood flowing,” I said and tried to squeeze his hand. He was like a shadow: I couldn’t touch him. The sound of train cars, clacking against their tracks, got fainter and fainter as the windows shrank and the cabin around me became smaller. A matching oak desk and dresser materialized, then the rest of my room in Washington…

from-nas“I wonder if I’ll even remember this dream,” I said. A freight train passing under South Dakota Avenue moaned. I shivered and started to crawl back into bed… but I brought my rubber bouncing-ball with me. “Balls,” I mumbled and giggled quietly to myself as I fell back to sleep.

Smelling Hope

It is possible that I smelled hope. It was hard for me to believe, too, since I was not aware that alligators could smell. I was readying to crawl into a mound of decaying leaves next to one of the remaining snow-piles. Only a few weeks ago there were vast chains of snow-piles all around Washington DC. The city’s lattice of cleverly ordered streets, of climbing-numbered longitudes and growing-lettered latitudes, and even its collection of slicing avenues were buried, dulled beneath jebels of snow~ more than hills, less than mountains. One day I took a walk and picked-up a ball of sweetgum, like an explosive baby-urchin or a disarmed marine mine. I smelled it but it held no scent; I put it to my ear like a sea-shell and I heard woodpeckers calling. If I burrowed into the snow, I would find that the lattice of passages had moved ninety-degrees, that when the horizontal streets of space retarded a vertical network opened through time. I could tunnel down and come-up in a driveway in 2001.

I wanted to be an author but I was more of a pacer. I promised myself that I would get a computer so I never had to cramp my hands writing a first draft. But I didn’t dare use the family computer to get started because someone might see, might mock me, might do much worse: encourage me. I hate encouragement; it lifts our taste for expectations above the trees to places we cannot climb. Those of us who might have ascended like monkey-ninjas to the highest boughs find ourselves, alas, sitting on the ground flapping our arms — wishing to be birds. The sound of woodpeckers echoed from the North woods, through the frozen bowels of time, and out of crevices in the snow. Then I saw a wood-pecker over-head and decided to pretend: “I’m a realist — no one is interested in where I could have gone, only in where I’ve been.”

I figured something out the other night while I was ice-skating but I think it would hurt someone very deeply if I ever shared it publicly.

Realists do not turn into alligators, though. Medicine people do such things. Perhaps in some places they would call them ‘shaman’ or ‘prophet’. It is much less embarrassing when someone else names a person such a thing but, in our incredulous age, I need to name myself. I am fessing-up: I am a ragged-excuse for a magical person. Yet, I am. Not in the Harry Potter or Dungeon & Dragons sense; so much of fantasy is a caricature of what real power could look like. All of that is for the birds — but I am for monkeys. I could be on a higher branch, right now. Explaining how I turned into an alligator is easier than explaining why, though perhaps less important. I do not fully understand why because I was actually trying to die of inertia. If I became really still and held my breath, maybe my heart would stop and depression with it. As my blood-cooled, primal-peace dawned upon me and…

An alligator in a river is practically weightless and invisible; as a general rule, a full-sized alligator dwells undisturbed, though alone. Such an absolute sense of security is soothing, a liquor much stronger but gentler than alcohol: it carried me away but never dulled my senses. My inhibitions disappeared but there was no violence lying beneath to be unleashed. I floated. I glided. I found a likely place to hibernate rather than die. For so long I wanted to hibernate; as a man, I was becoming addicted to sleep. If the snow-pile opened into the past, maybe the leaf-pile opened into the future.

When I smelled hope I knew that I should not waste time getting comfortable. I became a man again, refreshed from my retreat as a reptile. The channel became a set of railroad tracks again, and the train’s lights appeared from around the bend. Quietly, I ascended back to the street-level and breathed.

As for what hope smells like, I think you readers should tell me…

An Alligator

As I closed my phone, or put it upon the receiver, or swiped to the left (whatever people do now) I thought again about the job position. Preliminary phone interviews are as much reconnaissance as trial: I did not want it.
I took a kernel of sweet-gum and put it into my mouth. It felt like a sea-urchin on my tongue, at first, it was a tiny mine floating in the ocean of my saliva. Then I swallowed.
As I walked out of the door, I digested its medicine. The potion spread into my body, slowly, first through the guts and then passing into all my organs. At first I thought I was dying. The cold seemed to penetrate through all of my body except my heart. Those chambers remained like throbbing furnaces, both four of a kind on fire together and two-pair of occupations: atriums for bringing in my bedeviled blood and ventricles for pushing the spell to my extremities.
Then I started to feel a sense of peace and purpose. My skin seemed at first to be drying and cracking but after a while it became lacquered. Yes, it cured nicely into smooth, almost glossy scutes. Scales. Thin, fine plates that darkened into a shade of green so dark it was nearly brown, like the mucky bottom of a swamp. As I veered from the sidewalk and into the gully, I saw the train tracks sinking into the mud. The channel filled with water. On the shore, I shed my clothes like an old skin and I glided into the water. I barely made a splash — my nose was like an oar, smoothly splitting its surface. Soon, only my eyes showed and I started to wave my tale from side to side in slow, powerful strokes. In fact, my entire body assumed the same motion: from the tip of my snout and along the ridge of my spine.

I’d wanted to be an alligator all along.

Finding Balls on my Walk (another fragment)

Credit: Angela Johnson, wizzley.com

Photo-Credit: Angela Johnson, wizzley.com

I needed to go walking. How I knew I needed to walk can be the subject of a longer reflection, some other time. I varied my pace as I meandered through my Northeast D.C. neighborhood casting glances into obscure alleys or across the surface of familiar houses in order to hook something new with my eyes. I plugged my ears with the sounds of a band I liked before I left Michigan; I plugged into the lyrics of a song by Fireflight:

[Verse] “I want to know you/
There’s so much at stake/
Can’t face the memories/
They bend me till I break/
Hiding from the past/
But it’s eating me alive/
Can’t block it out/
When it’s coming from inside”

“Precious denial, a stone to break my back/
The chains I carry won’t cut me any slack/
Imprisoned by fear with no room for my heart/
My only hope, only you can heal the scars…”

“Every turn leads me to a new dead-end/

lost again, I’m screaming your name/

[Chorus]

Come close come close and call my name/

How can you turn your back on me when you know my pain?/

Stay close, stay close; light up the night/

Save me from the part of me that’s begging to die”

‘John Daniel’ used to mean something but I prefer to be called ‘JD’ most of the time. I closed my eyes for a few seconds and started to turn my palms upward. Quickly, I opened one eye and started to look around: was someone watching? Instead, I kicked a chunk of concrete up the street, up the route I had almost traveled, and took a sharp left toward home, toward the prospect of continuing a project for graduate school. The way downhill to the bridge that spans the train-tracks was punctuated with patches of asphalt, as out of place as tuxedo jackets laid over potholes, and buckled sidewalks like broken saltine crackers. A little rivulet ran along one edge. I weighed staying in D.C. versus looking for adventure abroad. Then, I thought of a friend who said she was moving to Iowa (with a boyfriend) and what a dismal idea that is if she wants to work in our field (International Education). There are solid reasons I might voice my dissent to her but sometimes I varnish better motives with my own vocational tensions — and I know it. These are both the sheen and the stain on my opinions. I stay silent, supportive.

I noticed the rivulet again: its speed, the way it carried debris, the volume of water moving down this little side-street to a storm grate by Vista street. For a second I imagined a capsized pot, the size of a car, spilling an endless supply of water onto the street from its absurd depths. I wondered from where the stream flowed, whether from a broken water-main or an unseen mountain of snow. Only a week ago I meandered through a groove in the snow piled on both sides of every road. A week ago I inhabited, I wandered, I explored a different scene in the same place.

Kirby's Dreamland Villain (cute, stationary)The water disappeared into the curb inlet and I went left, again, along Vista. On Vista my hooking eyes caught dozens of visions. Dropped from some unknown tree were a multitude of… spikey-balls? A fruit or nut of an unknown species, they looked all at once like giant cockle-burs or wilted, alien flowers. They reminded me of cartoon maces or generic, stationary foes from NES video games: “Kirby’s Dreamland” and its ilk.

Mines at sea.Before I could unhook them, they all turned into choices. I could step on them intentionally, with glee or curiosity or even sadness or, rather, I could fix my gaze on the distance and allow myself to trample them like wine-grapes. I could have embraced them, could have allowed them to happen, but I avoided them. Which choice of hundreds could be best? What if they really belonged to someone else and I ruined them? What if they made a mess on my shoes? These multitude futures, I decided, need to be left as they are until I could be certain. I want to come back with a machine, like the ones at the Bethlehem co-op, and pour all of them down its diesel-scented gullet and turn them into oil: dream-oil. Like olives, that cannot be eaten unless they have cured or are processed, I left them all alone. I did not pick one up, because I could not be sure that one of them was not my dream, or a dream I might regret, or…

Each spine became a button, a trigger-ball floating in the stream of my life. No, I did not touch all of those choices and their multitude of futures. They could be mines! Am I ready to explode? Am I fully qualified as the bomb? Have I practiced blowing-up enough? Can I find the time for combustion? What if my explosion isn’t as good as someone else’s… no…

A block further and many sidewalk-cracks later, I stepped in some dog-shit that I had not expected. That was probably gushing with symbolism, too, but I wish it had not gushed into the sole of my shoe. The copious, cleansing snow-piles that covered the sidewalks just a week ago succumbed to time. So I walked back to the minefield on my way to the stream. I wanted to stomp on one of those choices and see what future was inside but it was too late. Going backward, they had all turned into memories. They were all the past, now. Now, my dreams were flowing through the past. I stood on one leg, almost ready to reminisce — but how could I be sure that… how could I be… could I… how?

As I washed the dog-shit off my shoes, I wondered what what secrets bathed and clung to my shoes, what came next, and why this walk made me feel like writing…

Smashed Pear (entry fragment)

He left when he heard I was graduating. I wanted to follow him into the hallway and plead that I could drop my capstone class and hang around for another year but too many pieces of me were invested in matriculating. I wished him a good day and listened to the door shut behind him. A voice from the front of my brain, sitting on the tip of some pessimistic wrinkle, volunteered that he wanted eighteen months to get me into shape. Yet somewhere deeper inside the skull, buried between my hemispheres, I knew that he thought I was ready to play. Another musician — the director of jazz-bands — had affirmed that I was worthy of joining. But it all happened a year too late.

In my chest I felt something like a smashed pear. My heart felt cold, bathed in a cool ooze as if it had been dropped on the floor of that practice room. Everything seemed perfectly normal in the wake of his leaving, as if my life were wrapped in a plastic bag. A layer remained between me and the possibility of being recognized and developed as a jazz musician but the impact, the thrust of falling, could not be stopped. I wanted to lay on the floor, smashed. My heart was still beating but its skin was broken and it dripped cool sweetness into my chest, pumping it out into my extremities. I put my instrument to my mouth as if I were pressing it to the abrasion on my bruised heart, sealing the wound with a quick lip of my lips and the long buzzing kiss against cold metal. I played something familiar — “Love Gets Old” — but much bluer, with some new twists. The music and the motif met: a real musician with real blues.